Background: Varicella zoster virus (VZV) is a human pathogenic alphaherpesvirus harboring a relatively large DNA molecule. The VZV transcriptome has already been analyzed by microarray and short-read sequencing analyses. However, both approaches have substantial limitations when used for structural characterization of transcript isoforms, even if supplemented with primer extension or other techniques. Among others, they are inefficient in distinguishing between embedded RNA molecules, transcript isoforms, including splice and length variants, as well as between alternative polycistronic transcripts. It has been demonstrated in several studies that long-read sequencing is able to circumvent these problems. Results: In this work, we report the analysis of the VZV lytic transcriptome using the Oxford Nanopore Technologies sequencing platform. These investigations have led to the identification of 114 novel transcripts, including mRNAs, non-coding RNAs, polycistronic RNAs and complex transcripts, as well as 10 novel spliced transcripts and 25 novel transcription start site isoforms and transcription end site isoforms. A novel class of transcripts, the nroRNAs are described in this study. These transcripts are encoded by the genomic region located in close vicinity to the viral replication origin. We also show that the ORF63 exhibits a complex structural variation encompassing the splice sites of VZV latency transcripts. Additionally, we have detected RNA editing in a novel non-coding RNA molecule. Conclusions: Our investigations disclosed a composite transcriptomic architecture of VZV, including the discovery of novel RNA molecules and transcript isoforms, as well as a complex meshwork of transcriptional read-throughs and overlaps. The results represent a substantial advance in the annotation of the VZV transcriptome and in understanding the molecular biology of the herpesviruses in general.
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